by Darcia Helle
Justice Blackmun: “Rather than continue to coddle the Court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed.”
We like to say that “Justice is blind”, but justice is decided upon and meted out by people, and people are not flawless, unbiased machines. To ensure fairness, we have trials with lawyers and a “jury of our peers”. On the surface, this seems to offer an even balance for the accused and the accuser. The jury hears all the facts and no one person gets to decide a person’s fate. The letter of the law and justice prevails. An ideal system when it works. The problem is that the very same laws meant to protect the innocent sometimes hurt them instead. Jurors do not get to hear all the evidence, and what they do hear is interpreted by lawyers with an agenda. Sometimes those lawyers want to get at the truth. Sometimes they just want to win. Judges sit at the top of this legal pyramid, complete with their own very human preconceptions, ideals, and biases. In the hands of the lawyers and judges, the law is surprisingly easy to either bend or hold rigid.
The judge let constipation go to his head
His wife’s aggravation, you’re soon enough dead.
This flawed system latched onto Edward Lee Elmore, and there he found that “innocent until proven guilty” is just a meaningless phrase.
Edward Elmore was born on January 13, 1959 in the poor, black section of the racially divided town of Abbeville, South Carolina. He grew up in an environment where black people were not equal to whites. People of color only entered the ‘white sections’ of town to work, where they were treated as not much better than slave labor.
Edward’s mother, Mary Ellen Gardner, had 13 children by five different men. Edward’s father is listed as Henry Elmore, though Edward’s heritage was always in doubt. Edward had lighter skin than his parents and a reddish tint to his hair. Because of this, his siblings and other children taunted him, claiming he must have a white father. Regardless, Henry Elmore was killed when Edward was just two years old, and thereafter his mother had a steady string of men visiting, none interested in being even a part-time father.
Mary drank a lot and did little to protect or nurture her children. Consequently, Edward and his siblings were left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment.
Edward’s family was poor in a way most of us can’t fathom. They moved frequently, either because of eviction or in order to avoid rent collectors. Many of their homes were little more than shacks, with no running water or electricity. The kids all picked peaches and cotton to help earn money, and they’d often spend days collecting cans to turn in for the deposits.
Climbing out of such squalid misery would have been a challenge for the smartest and most capable among us. For Edward, it would have been a miracle. When he started school at the age of six, he could not do the most basic tasks such as name colors or draw a stick figure. He spent three years in the first grade. He had a speech impediment, tics, and was teased for being slow and “dim-witted”. In second grade, his IQ measured a mere 61, classifying him with “mild mental retardation”.
Despite his inability to learn, teachers advanced him through to third and then fourth grade. In fifth grade, at 14 years old and reading at barely a second grade level, Edward tired of the teasing and dropped out of school.
As an adult, Edward was not able to live on his own. He had tremendous difficulty grasping simple concepts. He never learned to tell time and, in fact, could not even draw the face of a clock. He didn’t understand the basic compass directions of north, south, east and west. Nor did he understand the concept of seasons. Maintaining a checking account was impossible because he could not do the necessary basic math. Fortunately, Edward did have one thing in his favor. By all accounts, he was a hard worker, likable, and honest. Clarence Aiken, a local contractor, hired Edward as a handyman. The job was his salvation and, eventually, his undoing.
Edward did odd jobs for the local white residents. One of those residents was the widow Dorothy Ely Edwards. She had no complaints about his work or his behavior. Indeed, the opposite was true. Dorothy was so pleased with Edward’s work that she’d asked him to return in a couple of months to touch up some paint on the window frames. This was in December 1982. In mid-January, Dorothy’s dead body was found in her home, and Edward’s world came crashing down around him.
Dorothy Edwards had a close relationship with Jimmy Holloway, her next door neighbor. After Dorothy’s husband died, Jimmy took it upon himself to watch out for her. Dorothy gave him a key to her home, presumably for emergencies, though he seemed to use that key frequently. Jimmy’s wife didn’t drink alcohol, and so Jimmy would often go to Dorothy’s house to have a glass or two of sherry. Neighbors routinely witnessed him sneaking out his back door and scurrying across to Dorothy’s home. Many people thought there was more to Dorothy and Jimmy’s relationship, an assumption that fit with Jimmy’s reputation as a ladies’ man. There were whispers of an affair. But none of this was ever remotely questioned as the murder investigation unraveled, a fact made even more baffling given the circumstances in which her body was discovered.
On January, 18, 1982, Jimmy Holloway used his key to let himself into Dorothy Edward’s home because, he claimed, he was concerned for her welfare. He knew she’d planned to leave town, to meet her boyfriend whom she had talked about marrying. But her car was still in her driveway and she wasn’t answering her phone. There was no sign of forced entry but, inside the home, Jimmy found an array of warnings. In the kitchen, Dorothy’s coffee machine was on and all the coffee in the pot had burned down to nothing. A partial denture was on the floor and, a few feet away, a pair of needle-nose pliers. One drawer was left open, with a pair of long-neck metal thongs sticking out. An empty bottle of sherry sat on the counter next to a bowl of fruit. The rest of the kitchen was spotless.
Jimmy continued through the house. He found an isolated bloody shoeprint in the dining room. In the den, the TV was on, the volume way up. Dorothy’s reading glasses had been set on the TV Guide, left open the previous evening. Nothing had been disturbed.
Jimmy then moved on to Dorothy’s bedroom, where the alarm clock had been steadily beeping since early that morning. Assorted items, such as breath mints, batteries, and tissues, were strewn across the white carpet. A serrated cake spatula, its handle bloody, lay incongruously amidst perfectly aligned family photos on the dresser. The bed was neatly made, though pushed away from the wall and out of its normal position. A pool of blood saturated the carpet in front of Dorothy’s closet. The door was ajar. What Jimmy did next was odd, to say the least.
Jimmy Holloway did not turned off the empty coffee pot that was burning, he did not turn off the TV, he did not turn off the alarm clock, he did not open the closet door, and he did not call the police. Instead, Jimmy left the house and got a neighbor to return with him. Together they walked back through Dorothy’s house, with Jimmy pointing out all the oddities. Then, with the neighbor looking on, Jimmy nudged open the closet door. There they found Dorothy’s bloody body crammed inside. And finally Jimmy called the police.
From here, this story becomes so unbelievable, the incompetence so complete, that the events defy explanation. Police arrived on the scene and allowed Jimmy Holloway to give them the grand tour. He pointed out everything he’d found along the way, ending with Dorothy’s body. He then showed them Dorothy’s checkbook, which he found on a table in the foyer, and showed them the register. On December 30, a check for $43 had been made out to Edward Elmore. Jimmy explained to police that Edward was a black handyman who’d recently worked for Dorothy. He expressed his concerns about this black man in this white neighborhood, working for a wealthy widow all alone in her home. And that was all it took for cops to decide Edward Elmore was guilty of murder.
Jimmy Holloway was never questioned in regards to Dorothy Edwards’ murder. Their relationship was never looked into. Neighbors were not questioned. Jimmy’s odd behavior was never considered. He was not asked about an alibi. He was not once considered a suspect by the all-white police department.
But all that is just the tip of the insanity here. Evidence was overlooked, lost, and deliberately hidden if it did not fit with the detective’s determination to “hang” Edward Elmore as rapist, robber, and vicious murderer. This continued to be the story told, despite the unavoidable fact that nothing had been stolen, that the issue of rape was questionable at best, and that the evidence had to be manipulated and/or ignored in order to point at Edward as the killer.
Edward Elmore, a poor, uneducated, mentally-retarded black man in a racially backward town was given a white court-appointed attorney who’d already decided he was guilty. The details of his so-called trial would be laughable if the situation wasn’t tragic. Edward, in his child-like confusion, proclaimed his innocence. He was sentenced to death.
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a condemned man claiming innocence to get a new trial.
This story easily could have ended this way, with Edward Elmore executed for a crime he did not commit. Had anyone along the way, from detectives to lawyers to judges, done his/her job properly, Edward’s innocence would have been obvious. But, not only did they not do their jobs properly, they did all they could to suppress evidence that would have exonerated Edward at the start. He was black, he was poor, and therefore he was guilty.
J. Christopher Jensen is a prestigious New York City corporate attorney who signed on to a program launched by the American Bar Association in 1986, which was recruiting lawyers to handle the appeals of death row inmates.
In a telling quote, Mr. Jensen compares Elmore’s case with that of O.J. Simpson:
“You want to draw a perfect parallel. Look at these two trials. Two guys charged with murder. No eyewitnesses. Lots of forensic evidence – blood, fingerprints, hair. Elmore gets a three-day trial, no meaningful defense. Simpson’s goes on for months. Look what money gets you.”
Jensen eventually brought Diana Holt, a young defense attorney with a checkered past and unshakable idealism, into the case. Although Jensen was her Ms. Holt’s mentor, and as one of Elmore’s appeal lawyers, was there with her during the hearings, but she did most of the casework.
What Ms. Jensen went through would test anyone’s faith in our justice system. The case is far too complicated for me to adequately represent here. In Raymond Bonner’s book about the case, Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, the author walks us through multiple appeals that were denied on technicalities of law, where the enormity of the corruption is truly mind blowing. Along with the corruption comes the legal nightmare that keeps a convicted man ensnared despite of his innocence. At one point during the process, Justice Michael Wolff was appalled to find the Constitution would be used to knowingly execute an innocent man. In his disbelief, he says:
“To make sure we are clear on this, if we find in a particular case DNA absolutely excludes somebody as the murderer, then we must execute them anyway, if we can’t find an underlying constitutional violation at their trial?”
The reply was, “Yes, Your Honor.”
Diana Holt truly became Edward Elmore’s guardian angel. She persevered, when most other reasonable people would have given up. A full 30 years after Edward’s arrest, almost everyone involved acknowledged his innocence, yet he remained in prison. Finally, though, Diana Holt dredged up enough of the lost evidence, proved enough of the incompetence, and made enough noise to get Edward a new trial. Edward could have been freed, had the State dropped the case there. Incredibly, the prosecutor, who happened to be the son of the original prosecutor, wasn’t about to admit defeat and announced he would retry Edward Elmore for murder. Part of this was due to pride, and part was to keep Edward from suing the state for wrongful imprisonment.
At this point, Diana Holt was exhausted and Edward Elmore had been on death row for 30 years. Evidence was tainted. Many people involved at the start were now dead. The decision was made to negotiate. Edward was given the option to take the Alford plea, which meant he would plead guilty without admitting guilt. Doing so would allow him to walk free. And so he did. On March 2, 2012, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Edward Elmore pleaded guilty to the murder of Dorothy Edwards.
Had it not been for the determination and dedication of one woman, the State would have executed Edward Elmore for the crime of being a poor, mentally retarded black male. How many others like him, who aren’t fortunate enough to have someone like Diana Holt on their side, now sit on death row?
[Prosecutor Billy] Garrett no longer supports the death penalty. He had seen how the system was abused and subject to manipulation. “Not human error, human manipulation,” he said. If the death penalty could be imposed in a case like this, without a fair trial, “then we don’t have the right as a civilized society to pass this judgment.”
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Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.
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